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David Foster Wallace: An Editor’s Nightmare


It’s been awhile since we talked David Foster Wallace on the blog, and I kind of miss it.

So, even though I’ve long since finished with Infinite Jest, I thought I’d revisit Mr. DFW today and take a look at an entertaining letter he wrote to an editor at Harper’s Magazine. His letter is in reference to an essay he wrote for Harper’s about Franz Kafka.

Remember the grammar quiz that DFW gave to his college students? He’s a grammar nazi if I’ve ever seen one, but DFW also proves that you have to know the rules to break the rules. And you also need to be able to explain your reasoning to your more-than-likely Grammar Nazi editor.

From: David Wallace

To: Joel Lovell, Harper’s [redacted] (Office [redacted])

This is pretty much the best I can do, I think. I feel shi— sticking a lot of what you wanted in FN’s, but I didn’t see any work to work it into the main text w/o having to rewrite whole ¶s and throw the thing’s Styrofoamish weight off.

The deal is this. You’re welcome to this for READINGS if you wish. What I’d ask is that you (or Ms. Rosenbush, whom I respect but fear) not copyedit this like a freshman essay. Idiosyncracies of ital, punctuation, and syntax (“stuff,” “lightbulb” as one word, “i.e.”/”e.g.” without commas after, the colon 4 words after ellipses at the end, etc.) need to be stetted. (A big reason for this is that I want to preserve an oralish, out-loud feel to the remarks so as to protect me from people’s ire at stuff that isn’t expanded on more; for you, the big reason is that I’m not especially psyched to have this run at all, much less to take a blue-skyed 75-degree afternoon futzing with it to bring it into line with your specs, and you should feel obliged and borderline guilty, and I will find a way to harm you or cause you suffering* if you f– with the mechanics of this piece.)

Let Me Know,

Dave Wallace

* (It may take years for the oportunity to arise. I’m very patient. Think of me as a spider with a phenomenal emotional memory. Ask Charis.)

Wow. I wouldn’t want to be DFW’s editor. He was known to be pretty militant about not letting copyeditors change his writing. Though I’ve done my fair share of nonfiction editing, I have no desire to edit fiction–for this exact reason.

Where is the balance between creativity/artistic freedom and grammar?

(Source: Letters of Note)

(Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this man.

    October 31, 2011
    • I totally agree. The more I hear and read about him, the more obsessed I become. What a guy.

      October 31, 2011
  2. I guess if you are DFW, the balance is wherever you want it to be. SInce I write non-fiction, I usually err on the side of grammar. I married a grammar nazi and was raised by one (my mother). Thanks for the post.

    October 31, 2011
  3. I think there’s a lot of context that plays into what makes the grammar right or wrong. There’s a lot that’s objectively right or wrong in grammar, but a lot that’s not. For me, when I write, it comes down to, “does this help the reader understand what I want him or her understand?” I see this as being very different from the proofreader’s view of, “can the reader understand this” — if the reader can parse my sentence but miss my point, then I’ve failed. So, if I need to break a rule here or there to get my point across, I will.

    I’ve learned, though, to pay attention to and respect my editors. More often than I realize, they do get my point and have seen a better way of expressing it.

    October 31, 2011
    • Yes. And it just depends on the editor. Some of them get so caught up with technical grammar that they can’t see the forest for the trees.

      October 31, 2011
  4. Thanks Robert, I was kinda missing DFW too. I struggle with this–I only write fiction and have never been a grammar snob (not that there’s anything wrong with that)……I could probably use one in my life ; )

    October 31, 2011
  5. I miss reading about DFW, too. Thanks for the post. Maybe we can re-read IJ somewhere along the way before you finish the whole list. (I’m not joking.) What a guy. What a book.

    My intro to DFW was Franzen’s article about him in the April 18 issue of the New Yorker. Intrigued, I went on line and found a short story by him and before I knew it I was reading IJ and subscribing to your blog. It was the prose that got me. To me, he feels just as much poet (with respect to the sound of the work, punctuation and wording) as a prose writer. No wonder editors had a hard time with him. Who wants to take on editing a poet?

    October 31, 2011
    • I can’t imagine anything more brutal than trying to edit a poet.

      October 31, 2011
  6. Carly #

    Totally off topic, but today’s webcomic on was vaguely reminiscent of an earlier post you wrote about Nigel Tomm’s “The Blah Story”. It gave me a chuckle anyway.

    October 31, 2011
    • Haha. That’s great.

      October 31, 2011
  7. I feel like grammar to DFW is what truth is to James Frey—a very gray area that can be lightened or darkened depending on the author’s own personal ebbs and tides. There are the essentials you believe in…but at some point you’ve got to allow the writing to take over, therefore letting go of principalities if necessary.

    October 31, 2011
  8. I’m still gravely disappointed in his misuse of “vomitorium.” in the cruise article.

    November 1, 2011
  9. …even if I can’t control my own punctuation in blog comments.

    November 1, 2011
  10. I so love the way you write. You are responsible for introducing and hooking me on DFW – what a brillant mind, what controversial works – DFW makes the writer consider writing in a totally new way, with a perspective that brings joy and fun. I am happy you “re-visit DFW” occasionally and I always adore your blog and its other content! Blessings ~Marissa

    November 6, 2011
    • Thank you for the compliments Marissa! I really appreciate it and I’m grateful for people like you who have been reading my blog since early on.

      November 6, 2011
  11. More DF, all the time!

    November 12, 2011

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